Re-examining Orwell

Ed Smith over at the New Statesman has a rather good criticism of Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is often trotted out as justification for grammatical prescriptivism, probably because of the six simple rules for good writing that Orwell promulgates. It is only second to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in this regard. Of course, neither Orwell or the prescriptivists realize that Orwell himself runs roughshod over his rule #4, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” In the essay Orwell uses the passive voice in about twenty percent of his sentences, while most writers of his era used it in only about ten percent. It seems that Orwell (Strunk and White, too, but that’s another story) didn’t know what the passive voice is, or at least wasn’t very good at spotting it in his own writing.

But Smith skips the grammatical skirmishes and drives a knife into the heart of Orwell’s argument that plain English inherently makes for clearer communication:

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